By Jerry Chandler
This weekend will see the release of Marvel’s much anticipated Black Panther film, and then hot on its heels will be Avengers: Infinity War. For Marvel’s cinematic universe, this is literally a year that’s been ten years in the making for them. It’s been an occasionally bumpy ride. They’ve had some truly great films come out as they’ve built towards the ultimate showdown with Thanos, but they’ve also had a few four finger stinkers hit the big screen as well. 20th Century Fox has been chugging along for a longer time now with the X-Men franchise in much the same way, although their films actually featuring the X-Men as a team have been unfortunately getting a little more reliably meh as time has worn on. I’m largely not even going to discuss what they did with Fantastic Four; especially as the Disney/Fox deal means we likely won’t see a misfire of that level with the team again. I’d mention Sony and Spider-Man, but that’s basically just part of the MCU right now.
Then there’s DC. They’ve been trying to play catch-up with Marvel while wanting to create their own version of Marvel’s shared universe. Sadly, while some efforts have been entertaining, they’ve not quite just yet stumbled onto their version of a winning formula. Even more unfortunate, their most recent three films all showed that they’re as susceptible as Marvel (maybe even more so) to replicating the biggest failure of so many modern superhero films. It’s a failing that Black Panther may even be facing from the early looks at it, but one hopes that it will give a much better showing than other films in this regards.
The villains suck.
A number of modern superhero films (and TV shows) have been very good about handling some of the early stages of the hero’s journey. In particular, some of them have handled the characters going from an ordinary person in an ordinary world to answering the call of their destiny extremely well. But, time and time again, it starts falling apart when the villains get introduced.
If there’s one thing I want to see more than anything else in the next wave of Marvel films and in the DCU films as they strive to get their act together, it’s a better class of bastards than we’ve seen so far. It’s not even a matter of bringing in more big name villains. We’ve seen the big name villains in a number of films. It’s all about using them properly.
People were excited about Ultron being the threat in Avengers: Age of Ultron for a reason. People were excited about Mandarin being announced as a villain for Iron Man 3 for a reason. These were villains who had been major threats to the various Marvel heroes over the years. By the end of the films they appeared in, they largely felt like anything but. This has been true of many big screen villains in recent superhero films, and it seriously undercuts some of the hero’s journey by the end of it.
In wrestling, they used to more commonly have guys called jobbers. These were the guys- with a few exceptions -no one typically cared about and no one ever expected to see win a match. They had a very important role in wrestling though. When you wanted to bring in a bad guy and build him up in front of the audience, he’d crush the jobbers like no one else. When you wanted to have your new good guy shine like nobody’s business, you’d have him look like a million bucks facing off against a jobber. Not just any schlub could be a good (let alone great) jobber. The best of them knew how to make their opponent look like a world-beater, and some of them even knew how to do it while making themselves look like something other than just another disposable body in the ring.
They were often used to build guys up in a feud without having the good guy and the bad guy face one another until absolutely necessary. Somewhere in between those two points, they might be built up a bit by facing off against a wrestler with a name who might be on the fading end of his career or who was over with fans but perennially stuck at the mid-card level. In the case of the bad guys, they would sometimes face a mid-carder or older wrestler who was storyline connected to the good guy as a friend or ally. He’d not only brutally beat a guy with a longstanding reputation, but he’d make it personal for the good guy.
In a way, jobbers sometimes played the role henchmen play when it comes to facing the good guys. You’d get a little action, but the outcome was never in doubt. That’s how you’re supposed to feel when your hero is being challenged by a henchman or your villain is taking on the local security, police, or military forces. But somewhere along the way, a lot of superhero films have been turning their villains into jobbers. Not only do they never feel like a true threat, but when the hero and the villain finally face off the confrontation feels like little more than a fight with a midlevel henchman.
Again, that undercuts your hero a bit. A part of what makes the hero’s journey feel like it meant something and was worth our time is seeing the hero overcome something that you feel like the hero might not be able to overcome. A lot of the Marvel films, both the MCU films and the properties still licensed out, and the most recent DCU films absolutely have an issue with this. In some ways, a hero is only as good as the villain the hero ultimately faces off against. When your film’s villain ultimately falls as easily as his or her endless horde of faceless henchmen, it’s a bit of a letdown.
Look at Marvel’s Doctor Strange for a moment. Great movie. Fun movie. It was a good thing that the filmmakers made so much of the story about the hero’s personal journey though, because neither villain ultimately proved to be a convincing threat.
Repetition and duplication are also a factor in why some of the villains are failing to impress as they should. So many heroes have been around for so long and developed such great rogues galleries, this shouldn’t be an issue. The guy who shrinks doesn’t need to face off against a second rate villain who shrinks. An enhanced super soldier needn’t face off against more and more enhanced super soldiers. A hero in high tech armor doesn’t have to face off against so many other guys who have high tech armor.
The Flash television show was horrible about this. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show. But, damn, they were starting to get into a rut with their big bads. The first season had Reverse Flash. The Flash’s goal to finally be able to beat him was to learn to run faster. Then we got Zoom for the second season. The Flash’s goal to finally be able to beat him was to learn to run faster. The third season started out with another speedster enemy, and then, after a brief detour, gave us another evil speedster and for a time another quest to get the good guy speedsters running faster. This season we have a villain who can’t run speedster fast, but who can outthink the Flash on every level and seemingly always stays ten moves ahead of him. It feels like so much better and more entertaining a challenge for the hero now because it’s not all about getting faster while facing off against a character that largely duplicates the Flash’s powers or using the speed force as a story crutch. So far, it’s been a more interesting built threat than another guy who just runs faster than the Flash. Now, whether or not they stick the landing as the season ends is yet to be seen.
But, ultimately, I’d just love to see a villain that actually feels like a genuine threat to the hero; especially in the climax of the film. There’s a reason everyone is looking forward to seeing Thanos and his crew finally make their full-on appearance in Avengers: Infinity War. People are actually wondering how the heroes are going to get through the encounter and just how great the cost to them will actually be. Because, before now, the only opponents that seemed to be able to be truly worthy adversaries for the heroes were other heroes. The only times we’ve seen life altering physical harm to a hero (outside of Thor’s eye) has been while fighting other heroes.
It needn’t be like this. These movies are based on characters with years and decades of history. In that history, there have been villains that have mopped the floor with the heroes and thus made the ultimate victory of the heroes feel as if it meant something. Find the villains that play against the style of the hero, and find the ones who did it while cleaning their clocks a few times, and give us that on film.
Oh, and stop totally screwing up some of the villains. If you’re going to announce you’ve cast an actor as Baron Zemo, don’t deliver to us a character that could just as easily have been called someone else and no one would ever think he was anything like Zemo. If you have an established character with all the potential for a good film villain that the Mandarin has, don’t give us an imposter knockoff as a red herring. If you’re going to bring in a heavy hitter like Apocalypse, don’t suddenly turn him into essentially the second fiddle to give one more run to Magneto. And, seriously, Doctor Doom… I’m still not sure that criminal charges are not warranted for what Josh Trank and crew did with Doctor Doom in the last Fantastic Four film.
The villain is such a vital component in making a good superhero film. Is it really too much to ask the powers that be to start putting just as much thought and effort into them that they put into the hero and the other aspects of the stories they’re putting up onto the big screen?
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.